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Andrzej Zulawski (#110 of 11)

BAFICI 2015 Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More

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BAFICI 2015: Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More
BAFICI 2015: Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More

Seen together, many of the excellent documentaries screened at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) articulate a surprisingly coherent argument about nonfiction filmmaking and its relationship to the real. The people on screen might not be invented characters, and their words might not (explicitly) be the creations of screenwriters, but the camera means mediation and performance. Someone selects the shots, presses the record button, and edits the footage, while the filmed subjects know they’re being filmed and knowingly create a version of themselves for the consumption of unknown audiences. Rather than ignore this phenomenon, some of the best documentaries take advantage of it, emphasizing how capturing reality is a way of intervening in it.

No other film at the festival conveyed this as forcefully as Tomás Lipgot’s Vergüenza y Respeto, concerning the Romani community in the greater Buenos Aires area. At the screening I attended, the film’s subjects were actually in the theater, cheering, applauding, and laughing at their projected selves, transforming the cinema into their living room. Cinematic portraits of minorities often establish a distance between the observer and the observed, between the director and his or her subjects, which then grows into an irreparable abyss between the viewers and the viewed. To pose an Argentine example: Even the canonical, fictional works of Lisandro Alonso, though they interrogate the marginality of the rural characters, end up reinforcing their inscrutable Otherness. Alonso himself acknowledges this problem in his meta-textual, self-reflexive Fantasma, in which blinkered city-dwellers, after watching the director’s own Los Muertos, fail to meaningfully connect with its provincial star, who travels to Buenos Aires for the quiet, underpopulated screening. “Who is this movie for?” Alonso seems to ask.

Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: On the Silver Globe

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Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: On the Silver Globe
Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: On the Silver Globe

A work of makeshift grandiosity as well as of genuine folly, Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe was born in a turmoil mirrored by its chopped narrative. Started in 1976 as an epic adaptation of a turn-of-a-century philosophical sci-fi trilogy by the director’s great uncle, the production was then abruptly stopped by the communist ministry of culture in 1977. Officially too expensive to continue, the movie was in fact too politically incorrect to handle.

It wasn’t till 1987 that Andrzej Zulawski was allowed to tinker with the incomplete footage and assemble it into what it currently is: “a stump of a movie,” per his off-screen opening remark. In the meantime, pieces of costumes and set designs were clandestinely preserved in private apartments by the film’s heroic crew, with the original negative miraculously ignored—and thus rescued—in a pile of cans standing next to a film archive’s hallway radiator.

Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman

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Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: Pavoncello, The Song of the Triumphant Love, The Devil, The Public Woman, Mad Love, and The Shaman

A pair of TV-produced half-hour shorts from 1967, Pavoncello and The Song of the Triumphant Love, often shown in black and white but originally shot in color (and present in this form at the BAMcinématek), represent the first independent directing work of Andrzej Zulawski’s career after serving as Andrzej Wajda’s assistant on Samson, The Ashes, and the omnibus Love at Twenty’s segment. Eerie, unabashedly romantic, ripe with masterful camera movements that still make film students take notes to this day, these two miniatures remain surprisingly fresh. Both are adapted from great writers’ minor short stories (by Stefan Żeromski and Ivan Turgenev, respectively), and both focus on disruptive love, while prominently featuring trance-like states of being. Last but not least, each film seems obsessed with fragility of sexless marriages crumbling under siege from illicit passion. In that respect, The Song of Triumphant Love particularly plays like an uncannily precocious version of Zulawski’s Possession, even while sporting the added flavor of being something akin to a Roger Corman AIP Edgar Allen Poe quickie, only shot on the other side of the iron curtain.

Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Possession, Boris Godounov, Blue Note, and Fidelity

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Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Possession, Boris Godounov, Blue Note, and Fidelity
Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Possession, Boris Godounov, Blue Note, and Fidelity

Andrzej Zulawski’s most lyrical movie to date, 1989’s My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, begins with a stroboscope frenzy of radiating colors, as computer programmer Lucas (Jacques Dutronc) watches garish x-rays of his brain and learns about his mysterious—and terminal—condition. As if in accordance with that rousing opening (scored to Andrzej Korzyński’s hypnotizing electro-throb), the movie itself is structured as a relentless series of emotional paroxysms. They’re all centered on Lucas’s strange relationship with Blanche, uneducated medium and fluent nightclub mind-reader, played by Sophie Marceau at her most radiant and cushy. Since she was Zulawski’s real-life partner from the time L’Amour Braque hit them both in 1984, and until their post-Fidelity break-up in 2001, it’s difficult not to approach My Nights as an autobiography of sorts. A story of a generationally mismatched couple feeding off each other’s powers and languages has a distinctive Pygmalion ring to it—an angle Zulawski often used when speaking about his relationship with the young Marceau. By the end of the film, Blanche is speaking in Lucas’s florid (and malady-affected) syntax, while the man regresses to an almost pre-verbal state of coarse directness (“That’s my word!,” Blanche cries out as she hears Lucas using one of her street-smart formulations). The astonishing central sex scene has as much to do with lovemaking as it does with mental dueling. Zulawski’s is a vision of a total irreconcilability of sexes and classes—as galvanizing as it is sad and stifling.

Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: That Most Important Thing: Love

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Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: <em>That Most Important Thing: Love</em>
Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: <em>That Most Important Thing: Love</em>

Loosely adapted from Christopher Frank’s plot-heavy bestseller La Nuit Américaine, Andrzej Zulawski’s first movie made in exile is a meditation on the preposterousness of being a couple, as well as on the impossibility of not becoming one. In that, it plays like an unwittingly perfect companion piece to Nicholas Roeg’s 1980 masterpiece Bad Timing.

The story of a déclassé Parisian actress named Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider)—reluctantly slumming in tawdry exploitation flicks—whose fate suddenly changes as she becomes a subject of manifold interest for a hip porn picture snatcher, Servais Mont (Fabio Testi), is all about death of one couple and a slow emergence of another. As Testi slowly asserts his grip on Schneider’s life, her boyish cinephile of a husband (Jacques Dutronc in a masterful turn) achingly fades away, and—by the end of the movie—is literally out of the picture.

Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: The Third Part of the Night

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Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: The Third Part of the Night
Andrzej Zulawski @ BAM: The Third Part of the Night

Andrzej Zulawski’s debut feature, released to a nationwide response of shock and awe in early 1972, seemed like an ominous comet zapping through the gray sky of Polish cinema. Based on the WWII experiences of its director’s father, beefed up with a hearty dose of apocalyptic visions, and sprinkled all over with casual hysteria, The Third Part of the Night was something new under the sun and moon alike.

There’s a great found metaphor at the center of the film’s queasy impact. Zulawski’s father, along with scores of Polish intellectuals, survived in Nazi-occupied Lviv by feeding blood to typhoid-infested lice at the local Weigl institute, engaged in full-time production of vaccines for the German army. Side effects included prolonged feverish fits, which made the surrounding occupation feel like a nightmarish blur. Mirosław Zulawski, highly active in the resistance movement, described his experiences in a short story, which his son then embellished with a cornucopia of bibilical symbols and signature obsessions all his own—of which the doppelganger motif is only the most pronounced.

No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka

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No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka
No Room for Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka

A man meets a woman, and we’re not even five minutes into the running time of Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka before they are having sex on the floor of her rented apartment. Immediately thereafter, this man is revealed as an anthropology professor excited by the discovery of a mummified shaman. The primal act of sex and the mysticism of the strange religious-historical find are the engines that drive this strange, often hilarious, frequently brutal genre film. It’s an art film about sex and sweat, one that seems to have emerged from the guts as opposed to intellectual game-playing, or in the bleakly absurd streets of mid-1990s post-Communist Poland. It’s fast, frenetic and seems to have been made either by a young man bursting with fresh energy or an old man who films every moment as if he might never get another chance to work.

As it happens, both are kind of true. Zulawski was, in fact, middle aged and soon to cut his directorial career short in favor of writing books. He had not made a film in his native Poland since his work was banned in 1976, and he vowed never to work again under the Communist regime. Szamanka was an independently funded production outside of the state. Most noted in America for his “video nasty” horror project Possession, starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani as a married couple descending into a hellish spiral of rage and carnal despair (and that’s before the monster shows up), Zulawski’s work is often about the painful relations between men and women.

Review: L’Amour Braque

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Review: L’Amour Braque
Review: L’Amour Braque

The mid-1980s were a time of stylistic excess, with loud pastel colors and big hairdos and neon-tinged nightlife, and even if Paris didn’t quite resemble the hyperrealist pastiche Andrzej Zulawski constructs in L’Amour Braque, certainly the world onscreen feels oddly familiar. The Reagan era of American politics, the glossy sheen of TV shows such as Miami Vice, the dawn of the MTV generation: these are my frames of reference for Zulawski’s film, shot in 1984 and released one year later, and for the French pop cinema of that era when pulp entertainment vaguely resembled high-end fashion advertisements with some haute pretensions of grandeur. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva and Luc Besson’s Subway were frivolous rushes of action-sex-sensation, seemingly fueled by cocaine and club music. What then to make of L’Amour Braque, shot within this plastic cultural landscape by an exiled, brashly ironic, intellectually provocative and emotionally explosive Polish film director from his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s epic-sized, violent and philosophically scattershot Christian parable The Idiot?